Coping With the Emotional Toll of Natural Disasters

Immediately following a natural disaster such as a tornado or hurricane, there are visible signs of the carnage all around us.

Houses ripped apart, trees and power lines down. Flooded roads and yards. Debris scattered everywhere.

Those are the obvious physical signs of the destruction that Mother Nature has caused.

Much more subtle – but every bit as real and alarming – are the hidden signs. I’m talking about the emotional toll experienced by people affected by the disaster.

That toll can be just as devastating to individuals as the loss of homes, businesses and treasured personal items. And sometimes it can still be felt long after the physical cleanup is completed.

An emotional rollercoaster

Natural disasters cause an incredible amount of stress and anxiety for those who live through them.

It’s common for people’s emotions to run the gamut. From disbelief and shock to anxiety about the future.

From disorientation and difficulty concentrating to apathy and numbing. From sadness and depression to irritability and anger.

Many people whose worlds have been turned upside down by a natural disaster find themselves feeling powerless. They may have a loss of appetite or trouble sleeping.

They often have headaches and stomach issues, or cry uncontrollably. They may experience frequent mood swings and panic attacks.

‘Traumatic life experiences’

Christie Manning is an assistant professor of environmental studies and psychology at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

She says, “After a natural disaster, your entire routine in life is disrupted.” She added that many people are unable to return to work, especially if they lack strong social support.

Anka Vujanovic and Matthew Gallagher are in the Department of Psychology at the University of Houston, Texas. Here’s what they say.

“Natural disasters can be overwhelming and potentially traumatic life experiences. For those directly impacted, the immediate aftermath of a disaster can be disorienting. (And) marked with displacement, shock and a strong need to restore order.”

A growing problem

Researchers found that approximately one-third of those displaced by Hurricane Katrina increased their tobacco, alcohol or marijuana use after the storm.

Studies conducted in the Virgin Islands following Hurricanes Irma and Maria revealed this. A significant percentage of children and adults showed signs of mental health problems.

Young children reverted to behaviors they had advanced beyond. Older children displayed aggressive tendencies. Most adults exhibited signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

And the problem is only expected to get worse. Scientists predict catastrophic weather events will become more frequent and more extreme. This will put even more people at risk for mental health problems.

9 effective ways to cope

Is there any hope? Absolutely, yes. There are tried and true ways to treat the emotional wounds inflicted by a natural disaster. Here are nine of them:

Join a local support group. Talking through your feelings with others who are going through the same thing can be extremely helpful. Especially if a trained professional is leading the discussion. Don’t hold your feelings in.

Spend time with family and friends. In many cases, family members and friends are the most supportive people in our lives. Their presence and comfort can be a big help at such a time.

Establish a normal routine. A natural disaster is anything but normal. What we need after a disruption like that is getting back into a structured schedule that will help us turn chaos into control.

Focus on self-care. It’s not selfish to take care of ourselves, physically and emotionally, following a major crisis. Get enough sleep, exercise and eat right. Staying healthy physically will do wonders for our emotions.

Find time for enjoyable activities. Think about what brought you relaxation and pleasure prior to the disaster and return to them if possible. This could be reading, watching a movie, going for a walk, playing golf, etc.

Help others. Some people may have a more difficult time coping with problems caused by the disaster than you do. Reach out to help them. It will give you a sense of purpose, and you’ll find you helped your emotional state even more.

Limit other stressors. The last thing you need right now is to stress out about something unrelated to the disaster. You have enough on your plate. As much as possible, push other stressors to the backburner for now.

Get one-on-one therapy. If after following the tips above you still are having difficulty coping, set up one-on-one sessions with a trainer therapist. Don’t try to do it alone at this point. Getting emotionally healthy is job one.

Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms. There are many ways to numb the pain caused by a disaster. Alcohol and drugs are the choices for many. That kind of behavior will only make the problem worse.

Natural disasters can be crushing… to our property, finances and physical health. Just as real are their effects on our emotions. Don’t let these disasters ruin your life. Take control to rise above it.

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